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Seven years ago, I was a bright-eyed recent university grad who had just moved to the big city—Toronto—for the first time. I was struggling to find my path as a filmmaker, and at the Toronto International Film Festival that year, I encountered what would become one of the most profound inspirations of my life.
At the festival, I saw Dying at Grace (2003), Allan King’s latest nonfiction “actuality drama,” which is about the final days of five patients at a Toronto palliative care hospital. I was deeply affected by the movie and its willingness to address things many of us would rather ignore or suppress.
Shortly after the screening, I mustered the courage to write Allan to say how moved I had been by his film and to volunteer my services if he needed a hand in his office. In his reply, he was kind and appreciative and took me up on my offer. Soon I was working for him on the release of Dying at Grace, doing whatever small things I could to contribute.
It snowed a lot that winter. To get to Allan’s apartment from mine, I would trudge up Jarvis and across Wellesley to Bay through the slush in my childishly big boots. Each day, I would stash my boots by the door and get to work, doing tasks like assembling folders with press clippings. All the while, I would eagerly listen to Allan talk about the beauty of Bach or Enlightenment philosophy or modernist literature, while his shaggy golden retriever slept in the corner.
Allan was always generous and kind. “Sami,” he would say, after I made a call, “you’re so excellent on the phone.” And then he would mention something I said on a call as justification. I would just smile and thank him, though I felt like the most socially awkward and nervous person on the planet.
I was living far away from all of my friends and virtually all of my family in a city that was strange and unfamiliar to me, and I had recently been shaken by some family news and the crumbling of my first serious relationship. When my life reached a breaking point, Allan was there for me. One day he came to my apartment to check on me. I opened the door and looked up to see his kind eyes looking down at me with compassion. I was a disheveled mess, but Allan came into my apartment, sat down on the couch, and listened. It really felt like the first time anybody had listened to me. With the help of Allan and his wonderful associate producer, Sarah, I was able to muster the strength to engage with my own emotions, both personally and through my films.
So for me, Allan wasn’t just one of the greatest nonfiction filmmakers of all time (as if that isn’t enough), he was also a mentor, a beacon of light, and a steadying force during my darkest days. Watching his films and listening to him speak about them, on a daily basis, I learned the single most important lesson in filmmaking: at their best and most profound, movies are about working something out—something deep inside your soul, whether that’s pain or anger or longing or love. With Dying at Grace, Allan admitted, he was confronting his own mortality, something he had avoided for a long time.
What Allan gave me was a way to look at the world that makes a bit more sense of things. Through his films and his words, he showed me that while life can be cruel, you can’t run from the pain, and you can’t ignore the beauty.
Sami Khan is a filmmaker based in New York.